Is This Dole's Idea of Leadership?

April 20, 1995

Sen. Phil Gramm can't resist the opportunity to one-up Sen. Bob Dole and vice versa. It's inevitable with both of them running for president, but this is getting silly. Senator Gramm says not only is he opposed to the nomination of Dr. Henry Foster to be surgeon general -- he won't even let the Senate vote on the nomination. He'll filibuster it when it comes to the floor. To which Senator Dole, the majority leader, says he might not let it come to the floor, even if approved in committee.

We can't think of a presidential nominee, once approved by a committee, being denied a full Senate vote (except in end-of-session traffic jams). Senate leaders often bring controversial nominations to a floor vote even when they have not won committee approval, especially when one party controls the Senate and another the White House.

In 1991, the Democratic-controlled Judiciary Committee declined to report favorably on Republican President George Bush's nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. That could have killed it, but the Senate Democratic leadership allowed a full Senate vote. In 1989, the Democratic Armed Services Committee did not approve the nomination of Sen. John Tower to be secretary of defense, but Democrats allowed a vote by the full Senate. In 1987, the Democratic Judiciary Committee rebuffed Ronald Reagan's nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, but the Senate was allowed to vote on his nomination anyway.

That's the way the Senate ought to operate. Dr. Foster deserves a full Senate debate and vote on his nomination, if he chooses to make the fight, even if he is not approved by the Labor and Human Resources Committee next month, and certainly if he is. Either way, President Clinton is right to pledge to "go to the mat" for his nominee. It is the political thing for him to do, given that his pro-choice, pro-affirmative action base wants Dr. Foster confirmed, but more to the point it's the presidential thing to do.

Senator Dole is trying to out-bid Senator Gramm for the pro-life vote, which is legitimate politicking, but he is mistaken if he believes pulling a parliamentary trick on the Foster nomination would demonstrate leadership. He would look more like a follower, afraid of Phil Gramm's shadow. A real leader opposed to such a nominee would round up the votes to defeat him.

The majority leader has a political problem unrelated to Dr. Foster. The Senate never rubber stamps the House's agenda item by item, and it is not going to on the Contract with America. That will no doubt prompt sniping at Mr. Dole by Mr. Gramm. But what Senator Dole must do is get as much of the contract enacted as he wants and can get passed, then explain to the American public why the Senate wouldn't eat the whole thing. That's leadership. He should be positive, not negative -- and definitely not petty and silly.

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